John Green loved Marlene Sismondo. He’d leave little gifts in her clothes pockets, write love notes on the mirrors in their home, and re-create the Italian dinners that her parents
John Green loved Marlene Sismondo. He’d leave little gifts in her clothes pockets, write love notes on the mirrors in their home, and re-create the Italian dinners that her parents used to make. After 20 years of dating, John married Marlene.
Marlene had two loves: John and dark chocolate. “I never saw her without a bowl or a bag of chocolate somewhere,” says Holly Rinaldo, John’s daughter. One day, John and Marlene traveled from their home in Beaufort to New York for a chocolate festival. She was in heaven. It was there that John thought, Why don’t we do this in Carteret County?
In February 2002, he asked the Crystal Coast Civic Center in Morehead City if they would host a chocolate festival to support local charities and businesses struggling during the offseason. The civic center offered up the space but told John that he’d be lucky to get 300 people for the daylong event. “We just don’t have anybody down here in the winter,” Rinaldo remembers the staff telling her father.
John was undeterred. He spent all of his free time promoting the event, inviting chocolate vendors from across the country and putting together a list of local charities that would receive proceeds from the festival. The day of the Carolina Chocolate Festival came — and so did 3,000 people. Every vendor sold out of sweets by noon that day.
After the inaugural festival, John and Marlene expanded their offerings, transforming the one-day event into a three-day celebration. Today, festivalgoers are welcomed with treats, including toffee, truffles, fudge, cake, and chocolate-covered bacon or strawberries. The couple also added events like chocolate bingo, a 5K run that includes hot cocoa, and a pudding-eating contest — Rinaldo’s favorite. “People are covered head to toe in chocolate,” she says.
John planned and executed the festival — now a nonprofit organization — until he died in 2006. In 2007, Beaufort Grocery Company owners — and the Greens’ neighbors — Wendy and Charles Park hosted a charity chocolate auction as part of the festival. Rinaldo and her sister, Valerie Mitchell, presented a collection of 14-layer cakes baked by a friend. “We got up and said, ‘We’re doing this in honor of my dad,’” Rinaldo says, holding back tears. One sold for $2,800. Every penny went to local Boys & Girls Clubs.
Although Marlene died in 2020, Rinaldo still travels to Morehead City from her home in Hillsborough each February for a taste of chocolate — and to remember the love story that started it all.
To find more February events, visit ourstate.com/carolinacalendar.